Those who look before they leap may be smarter than those who hesitate. An illuminating new study suggests that men who are risk-takers have better developed neural networks in their brains.
This comes in stark contrast to the belief that people who are cautious have more brain stimulation and are more intelligent.
The study was conducted at the University of Turku in Finland under the direction of SINTEF. SINTEF is the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia.
The team used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) techniques to measure how risky behavior changed the activity and structure of the brain. They focused on the white matter of the brain, which contains the neural network and is essential in maintaining communication between different regions of the brain. Because it’s so important in cognitive function, white matter is often described as the brain’s “superhighways.”
The researchers believe that their results can be attributed to the fact that risk-takers are more likely to seek out challenges. Risk-takers are curious and hungry for new things, likely for the sake of learning and experience.
“All the positive brain chemicals respond under such conditions, promoting growth factors that contribute to the development of the robust neural networks that form the basis of our physical and mental skills,” said SINTEF researcher and behavioral analyst Dagfinn Moe. “The point here is that if you’re going to take risks, you have to have the required skills. And these have to be learned. Sadly, many fail during this learning process – with tragic consequences. So this is why we’re wording our findings with a Darwinian slant – it takes brains to take risks.”
The group observed 34 young men, aged 18 or 19, who participated in a driving game where they were awarded points based on the level of risk they were willing to take. The test was setup as a simulated car journey through 20 traffic lights. The men were broken off into two groups, high risk-takers (HRT) and low risk-takers (LRT). The risk in the game was the reaction of the men when they encountered an amber light and had to choose between two actions. The first being “to stop” and the second was “take a chance, run the light, and complete the journey through all 20 traffic lights as quickly as possible.”
The decision to stop added three seconds on the participant’s time and a collision added six. The best times were achieved by those who ran through the light and avoided any collisions, but they wouldn’t know if they were going to encounter another car on the crossings. Those results indicated that high risk-takers didn’t hesitate for long before making their decisions. Their optimism, willingness to take chances and belief that they would win determined their decision. Low risk-takers found themselves in a dilemma and spent more time questioning their next move.
Researchers also discovered that the white matter in the two groups was different. Those who made quick decisions and took chances during driving simulations had significantly more white matter than those who hesitated. “Daring and risk-willingness activate and challenge the brain’s capacity and contribute towards learning, coping strategies and development,” said Moe. “They can stimulate behavior in the direction of higher levels of risk-taking in people already predisposed to adapt to cope optimally in such situations. We must stop regarding daring and risk-willingness simply as undesirable and uncontrolled behavior patterns.”